Will a partnership emerge between Israel and Ukraine?

Will a partnership emerge between Israel and Ukraine?

In the midst of respective civil conflicts, Israel and Ukraine find themselves being drawn closer together. A strengthened partnership between the two countries could yield a number of strategic dividends.

Ties between Israel and Ukraine are deeply-rooted. Between 300,000 and 400,000 Jews live in Ukraine today, but the country was a bastion of Jewish life for centuries. Many Israelis have roots in Ukraine, including political titans like Golda Meir and Levi Eshkol.

Since the beginning of the Russia-backed insurgency in Eastern Ukraine, Israel and Ukraine have been drawn closer, and could find solace in one another’s embrace in the coming months. Moral support for Ukraine’s anti-terror operation (ATO) is high in Israel, expressed in the popular Facebook page “Israel supports Ukraine” and an Israeli volunteer group to help those wounded on the Maidan.

In July, Ukraine’s ambassador to Israel, Henadii Nadolenko, penned an op-ed in Haaretz bluntly titled “Ukraine and Israel: Together in fighting terrorism.” Highlighting the countries’ shared struggles in counter-insurgency operations, the Ambassador states that large-scale civilian losses could have been avoided had the international community condemned the “activities of terrorist organizations.”

Nadolenko – and through him, Kiev – are playing to Israel’s long-standing fear of international “de-legitimization.” At a time when support for Operation Protective Edge cuts across the Israeli political spectrum, such rhetoric only stands to gain friends in Tel Aviv.

This partnership could move beyond rhetorical support to economic. With Washington declining to export weaponry to the Ukrainian military, Kiev could tap into Israel’s highly-regarded defense industries. Ukrainian special forces already utilize Israeli small arms, particularly the IMI Tavor assault rifle and modified variants of the IMI Galil. Outfitting the Ukrainian armed forces with Israeli arms is an enticing, albeit costly prospect for the country’s modernization plans.

A groundswell of support for each other could also revive the dormant Ukraine-Israel free trade agreement, previously shelved in August 2013.

One complicating factor, however, are the cordial ties between Russia and Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu declared Israel’s neutrality in the Ukraine crisis in April, having earlier opted not to vote in the March 27 UN General Assembly resolution on Crimea. Burgeoning economic ties between Russia and Israel, including a potential free trade agreement and tourism, largely account for this. Together with the large Russian-speaking demographic in Israel – represented perhaps most prominently by the Soviet-born, firebrand foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman – are sure to constrain closer ties between Israel and Ukraine.

Further, with Israel’s fast-deteriorating global brand, politicians in Kiev maybe reluctant to pursue closer bilateral ties. Though it would be useful in blunting the Kremlin’s charges that Ukraine is led by a “Nazi junta,” close association with as polarizing a country as Israel could antagonize Kiev’s supporters in the European Union.

If both Israel and Ukraine can tip-toe around their respective elephants in the room, they could well find willing friends in each other’s arms. Such a partnership could well extend beyond popular support and translate into concrete economic benefits for both parties.

Categories: International, Politics

About Author

Daniel Bodirsky

Daniel was previously a Program Editor and Asia-Pacific Analyst at the NATO Council of Canada, the Canadian representative at the Atlantic Treaty Association. Daniel is an MSc candidate in Strategic Studies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.